Authors: Janet Dailey
It is well established that the Indian country west of Arkansas is looked to by the incoming administration of Mr. Lincoln as a fruitful field, ripe for the harvest of abolitionists, Free-Soilers, and Northern mountebanks. We hope to find in your people friends willing to cooperate with the South.
âGovernor Henry M. Rector, Arkansas|
(in a letter to John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation)
The carriage rolled up to the three-story brick home in the town's more fashionable residential district. With an agility that belied his advancing years, its driver assisted his passenger, a lovely young woman of nineteen gowned in a visiting dress in two shades of blue that flattered the honey gold of her hair and accented her blue eyes. Accepting the hand he offered, she stepped down and immediately opened a parasol to shade her face from the bright rays of the afternoon sun.
" âTis waiting right here I'll be when you're ready to leave, Miss Parmelee," the driver informed her with a quick bob of his head.
"Thank you." Diane Parmelee flashed him an easy smile full of a potent charm that dazzled. She walked gracefully to the pedimented front porch and within seconds of her knocking, the Fletchers' Irish housekeeper, Bridget O'Shaughnessy, stood before her in a white dust cap that blended with the silver of her hair.
"How are you, Bridie?" Diane greeted her with a warm smile.
The housekeeper gaped at her in momentary astonishment. "Saints be praised, it's Miss Diane. And all grown up, too. What a day for visitors this is. Is the captain with you?" She peered beyond Diane.
"No, my father is still at his post in Saint Louis."
"Look at me, jabbering away and leaving you standing out there," the housekeeper declared in self-reproach and waved her inside. "Come in, come in." Diane closed her parasol and stepped into the oval entry hall. The housekeeper wagged her hand in self-remonstration. "I know I should be asking after your mother, but it's mad I get just thinking about her. âTis not my place to be judging her, I know, but it's hard I'm finding it to forgive her for divorcing the captain to marry up with that rich Thomas Austin. 'Twas an awful thing for the captain, him being a gentleman and an officer."
Diane laughed in genuine affection. "Bridie, you haven't changed at all," she declared, unable to take offense at the housekeeper's criticism of her mother. As much as Diane regretted her parents' recent divorce, she was old enough to understand the differences that had finally pulled apart their marriageâher father loved army life and the frontier, while her mother longed for the more genteel existence and permanent home Tom Austin offered her.
"It's for certain and sure that you have," the woman countered. " 'Tis a full-grown vision of loveliness you've become. I know 'tis sorry Mrs. Fletcher will be that she isn't here this afternoon to see you, but this is the day the ladies of the Library Society have their tea."
Diane experienced a twinge of disappointment. She had always enjoyed the company of Mrs. Fletcher, who had been her confidante since her return several years ago. "I had hoped to catch her at home. But I'm staying at the Wickhams'. Let me leave my cardâ"
"You can't be going without seeing Mr. Fletcher," the housekeeper stated flatly. "It's my hide he'll be having if you do. Come with me. It's in his study he is." Bustling off, she ushered Diane down the hall to a set of wooden doors, knocked once, and slid them open. "Begging your pardon, sir. It's another visitor that's come to see you." Without announcing Diane by name, the housekeeper stepped back to admit her.
Diane walked into the study, and Payton Fletcher moved quickly to greet her. At sixty years of age, he was a portly man with round cheeks and white hair flowing from the edges of his bald crown.
"Diane, what a delightful surprise." Both hands reached out to clasp hers in welcome. "What are you doing here in Springfield?"
"I'm staying at Judge Wickham's this summer with their granddaughter Ann Elizabeth while Mother is making a grand tour of Europe on her honeymoon. Naturally one of the first things I wanted to do after I arrived was to pay a call on my father's favorite godparents."
"We are his
godparents," Payton Fletcher asserted, a white eyebrow arching at her curious choice of words.
"So you are," Diane said with a teasing gleam in her eyes, then leaned forward to brush a kiss on his cheek.
"What? Oh, of course, you were making a joke, weren't you? You young people will have to forgive an old man for being a bit slow." He looked to a point beyond her left shoulder. At that instant, Diane realized someone else was in the room, and the housekeeper's phrase “another visitor” echoed in her mind. Before she could turn to look, Payton Fletcher was saying with a slightly addled frown, "You two do know each other, don't you?"
"We do." The deep, masculine register of the answering voice sent a tremor of excitement through Diane.
Its pitch was lower than she remembered, but Diane recognized it just the same. Exercising the greatest control, she slowly turned to face him, conscious of her heart thudding against her ribs.
Lije Stuart stood near the study window. He was tall, an inch over six feet, and his black hair lay ruffled along the edge of his forehead. He wore gray trousers and a dark cutaway coat tailored to fit smoothly across his wide shoulders and leanly muscled chest. His familiar face was more rugged and compelling than it had been the last time she saw him five years ago, yet it still retained the bronze cast that spoke of his Cherokee ancestry, a contrast to the startling blue of his eyes.
Born and raised at Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory, Diane had known and adored Lije Stuart her whole life. She had been a girl of fourteen when the army closed Fort Gibson and reassigned her father to a post in the East. In the intervening years, she had often wondered if she would ever see Lije againâand whether her reaction to him would be the same.
Facing him, Diane at last had her answer as the sight of him made her catch her breath. With practiced poise, she crossed the room and extended a gloved hand in greeting.
"Lije, finding you here is the most wonderful surprise." She made no attempt to mask the delight in her voice or her smile despite the mockingly demure tilt of her head.
"It's good to see you again, too, Diane." Lije's response was reserved, a habit once dictated by the difference in their ages.
But the Diane Parmelee standing before him now was no longer the lovely and innocent young girl he had known. She had grown into a woman of stunning beauty. Her face was almost mystically perfect, the kind that could rule a man's fantasies. Her hair swept back from it in a glorious, golden cascade, like an angel's. And her eyes sparkled with a zest for life. They were focused on him with an intensity that had his blood heating.
Desire flared through him just as it always had when he was around her. And, as always, Lije banked it. He took her hand. Her gloved fingers closed on his in an unusual mingling of delicacy and strength.
She gracefully made a half-turn toward Payton Fletcher. "The last time I saw Lije was at the annual May celebration held at the Cherokee Female Seminary in Tahlequah. After the May Queen was crowned, the military band from the fort played on the lawn behind the building and everyone dancedâexcept me. My mother forbade it. She said fourteen was too young. I was totally crushed. You see, Payton, Lije had previously promised he would dance with me, and I was excited at the prospect." Diane paused and slanted Lije a sideways glance that both teased and challenged. "Do you remember what you told me?"
"That we would dance together someday when you were older."
"I fully intend to hold you to that promise, Lije Stuart."
"I can't say that surprises me." Even as Lije smiled at her statement, he envisioned her in his arms, the two of them swirling around a dance floor, their eyes locked, nothing and no one else existing. He felt that twist of desire again, and again fought it back to direct his glance at Payton Fletcher. "Diane was always a very determined young lady. If she failed to get what she wanted one way, she searched until she found another."
"I confess I do tend to be single-minded about what I want." Her eyes were on him.
"A dance is a trivial request," Lije told her.
"Ah, but great things have come from less auspicious beginnings. Don't you agree, Payton?" She turned to the older man with a confident tilt of her head.
"I do, indeed," he replied with a decisive nod. "In fact, I was just telling Lije that his education at Harvard will prove to be a stepping stone toward a promising future."
"Susannah wrote me that you were studying law at Harvard," Diane said, referring to her childhood friend and Lije's nineteen-year-old aunt. "I had hoped you would pay a call on us after we moved to Boston this past spring."
"I suspect your mother would have given me a cold reception if I had." A wry smile curved his mouth, creating craggy dimples in his cheeks.
"You shouldn't have let that stop you," she chided, acknowledging indirectly that her mother's attitude was a problem. But it was an obstacle that was literally an ocean away at the moment, one that could be dealt with later.
"Perhaps I shouldn't have," Lije conceded with the smallest of shrugs. "Five years is a long time. People change."
Diane smiled. "I have to admit I have changed from that gawky fourteen-year-old girl with freckles you last saw."
"As I recall, you only had freckles because you went riding with your father without a hat. And you were never gawky," he stated. "Even as a child, you had a beauty and a radiance that captivated the heart of every male within miles."
"And now?" She waited for his answer, her breath catching.
"And now," his glance made a slow and thorough sweep of her before coming back to hold her gaze, "impossible as it seems, you are even more beautiful."
Diane saw the attraction in his eyes. At nineteen, she was sufficiently experienced in the ways of a man to know when one was interested in her. Lije was. She wanted to hug herself with the sheer joy of knowing it.
"That, my dear, is a fact," Payton Fletcher declared. "One that I heartily echo. It was remiss of me not to tell you before how lovely you look. Lije's grandfather Will Gordon told me years ago that you can never give a woman too many compliments. I should have remembered that. It's good to see his grandson did." He glanced at Lije. "You must be sure to give your grandfather my fondest regards when you see him."
"I will," Lije promised.
"Will Gordon and I went to school together," he told Diane.
"Yes, I know."
He paid no attention to the two young people before him who, through evasive glances and silent surveillance, were taking stock of all that had changed in each other. Instead, he was temporarily lost in those long-ago days. "We had some grand times together. Many was the night Will had to carry me home." He chuckled at the memory and shook his head. "If it hadn't been for Will, I doubt I ever would have graduated. He was the intelligent one. It's heartening to see that same intelligence in his grandson." He beamed in approval at Lije, then informed Diane, "Lije is too modest to tell you, but congratulations are in order. He has graduated from Harvard with honors."
"How wonderful! Congratulations."
"Thank you." He inclined his head.
"What are your plans now?"
"To return home and put my study of law to good use. I'll be leaving at the end of the week."
"So soon?" Diane protested. "Surely you can stay another week or two, can't you?"
"I've been gone for four years."
"What's another two weeks after four years?" She looked at him, her eyes aglow with challenge and... something else. "Judge Wickham is holding his annual summer party in two weeks. If you are a man of your word, you will be there to dance with me."